The Graduation Speech I Never Gave #TBT

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#TBT to my first degree when I was valedictorian but did not attend graduation. I have been in the top 10 for all of my degrees, but my attendance at graduations has been sporadic, contingent on many factors in my life at that time. This is the speech I had prepared to give well over a decade ago when I completed my first degree. For that degree, there actually was no ceremony, as I graduated in the “off” (fall) semester, so there was nothing to attend. Note that the above photo is from a degree that did have a graduation ceremony.

Speech

There are so many people to thank, that I could be here all day. There are so many inspirational people and speeches that I would love to emulate. Some of my favorite graduation moments, speeches, and phrases come from movies such as Reality Bites and Say Anything. I would love to say something epic that will inspire you to go out and do great things, challenge the status quo, and change the world.

But when it comes down to it, it really does not matter what I say as I stand here before you today. You will not remember any of it. Twenty years from now, you will not remember the speeches, you will not remember what you wore, nor will you remember the unease you now feel as your sock is slipping down into your shoe. What you will remember are the feelings and the people who are here with you today celebrating and sharing this most amazingly precious moment with you.

So, I will say this: people are what are most important in life. This is what we need to remember. Graduation is a great accomplishment. We have sacrificed ourselves, our time, and our future earnings in pursuit of education. Never forget the people who have supported you through this time and who are here with you today. It doesn’t matter how much money you earn, if you get that snazzy corner office, or if you end up waiting tables and riding a bicycle, what matters most are the people in your life. Your legacy will be the ways in which you are able to make life better, even if that person you better is simply yourself.

When you leave here today, be sure to hug your children, your spouse, your parents if they are still alive, and even your grandparents if they are around too. For while graduation is a huge accomplishment, it is only a flicker compared to the flame of love that is the people in your life.

We have all sacrificed something in order to achieve this accomplishment today. Remember to be thankful for every thing in life. We should not be thankful just on the day in November when the calendar tells us to be thankful. Be thankful every day. Congratulations on your achievement and go forth and spread love into the world.

End Speech

I am currently in the home stretch of my final degree with less than two weeks to go. While I oscillate between relief and excitement to anxiety and despair, there is a part of me that knows that these are the days I am going to miss. They say that college is the best four years of your life. It has been the best twenty years of mine. As I look to the future, I am scared. I have been in some sort of educational institution for over 30 years of my life. Some people have been institutionalized by the mental health system, some people have been institutionalized by the criminal justice system, and I have been institutionalized by the education system.

I am sure that at some point I will have panic over the fact that my academic career is over. What is perhaps most difficult is the fact that it is over whether I like it or not. Even if I do decide that I want to return to school in the future to complete a PhD, I am unable to do so because I have officially maxed my federal student loans. Unless some institution decides to give me a full academic scholarship, I am unable to continue with any more education. I am not sure what is scarier – the fact that I cannot receive any more education, or the fact that I have officially reached the ceiling for student loan debt.

I have been half joking and half serious lately that I do not want a graduation party. I want a retirement party. Twenty years in any field is a career. My career as a professional college student is ending. I am not simply graduating; I am retiring from being a professional college student. I will never stop learning, but I will now be learning by less formal means.

I am looking forward to retirement. I have employment I love, and the most amazing people in my life. I am looking forward to running more marathons, and surfing more waves. My library card will be getting a great workout. I think I may even be getting a fishing license for 2016. I will finally have time to devote to the people and things in my life that are as equally or more important than education, which have traditionally taken a back burner role to school.

A few months ago, when I posted about the penultimate paper (the last but one paper), I had foretold that this major life change would be a challenging time for me but that I hoped to be able to face it with grace. I’m not quite sure you would call this last month or so grace; it’s more like the break dance you inadvertently perform on a slick floor trying not to fall down. Whatever is happening, my life is about to change in major ways.

I’m looking forward to being able to Rewind Real Slow.

Seattle #TBT

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Monthly #TBT from when I returned to the east coast from the west, and all the thoughts and feelings a decade brings.

When I think about leaving the west coast and returning east in 2005, I think about freedom. Everything we owned fit right into the back of a pickup truck. I took one backpack with me on the plane from Sea-Tac to Upstate New York. I was perfectly content with being able to wait a week with the contents of that pack while the rest of my belongings arrived. While books, CDs, and other household items make one feel comfortable and help to fill the time, they are not necessary to survival.

Fully embracing your local community and taking advantage of what is readily available is key. Using farmers markets and shopping locally not only helps your neighbors financially, but helps you to make friends as well. When we were in Seattle, we were constantly going to this show and that show, and having the best time with people – all by word of mouth without things such as Internet and social networking.

While it took time to build this same foundation and network on the east coast, we did build. It started with a poster. Go to a show. Talk to like-minded people who hang out in the same places as you, and suddenly you have a group of friends with common interests.

What I miss the most about the west coast is that it was affordable to live right in downtown Seattle and be within walking distance to practically everywhere. While we did have a truck, it often set idle in the driveway. Many times, we could bike or walk any place we needed to go.

On the east coast, housing is too expensive to live in a city or town to be able to walk or bike anywhere. On the east coast, vehicles are a necessary evil, as housing prices are more affordable in the suburbs, and things that you need like grocery stores and medical care are too sparse and spread out to be able to rely on public transportation. Not to mention, public transportation on the east coast often runs infrequently with limited routes.

Seattle reminds me of being able to throw the surfboard in the back of the truck and spending a day at the beach. Literally everything you needed was readily available. There was no need to have a vehicle on a daily basis unless you wanted a beach excursion or other type of road trip.

I’m sure that things have changed since I left the west coast- housing prices and availability for one. There is something to be said about being able to pack up all your belongings in two or three storage totes and pick yourself up for a cross-country relocation. There is freedom in not having to spread yourself thin trying to get to work, obtain groceries, or run other errands. On the east coast, the geographic challenges tend to contribute to more social isolation, and thus I feel it necessary to have more entertainment and distraction options in my home – movies and books for when the snow flies, and everything shuts down for a day, buried under feet of white stuff.

While hindsight is 20/20 and often viewed through rose-colored lenses, the aspects of coming back east that stick with me the most is how much I experienced on the west coast with so little belongings. When you settle in one place for an extended period of time, as I have been on the east coast, you accumulate stuff. Life was so much simpler without all the things.

It is thoughts such as these that contribute to my wanting to rewind real slow. That yearning for the wanderlust of youth when you had exactly what you needed, and nothing more, and if someone said, “let’s do this,” you enthusiastically replied “okay.” Seattle also taught me that I was put on this planet to live. Living is not simply working and paying bills. I deserve to have experiences in my very short time I have to be on this planet. That is a lesson I often forget in the nose-to-the-grindstone mentality of east coast workaholics.

Seattle is also special because it is the last large expanse of time in which I remember being present. Before the widespread use of smart phones, constant pings and notifications, social media, etc, we lived every day in the moment. Life really was much simpler when if you wanted to see or talk to someone, you had to find them, and if you could not get there due to distance, you wrote them a letter. The mail takes 3 days.

Ten years of living the grind on the east coast has definitely taken it’s toll. In my efforts to rewind real slow, I am hoping to return to some of the ease I felt on the west coast. Not only the relaxed pace, but the ability to live in the moment without fear of the future. The desire to recreate that feeling anywhere without being geographically bound to a particular location is what I am hoping to achieve. They say home is a place you carry with you. I am trying to build that feeling for myself where I presently am.

Is there a certain place in your life that elicits certain feelings? How can you recreate those feelings in your current location? Whether nostalgia or rose-colored glasses, how can you work to create experiences you envision?

#TBT #Occupy

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By request, this month’s TBT post tells about the three months I spent with the Occupy movement in five different American cities.

“It ain’t a middle finger on a t-shirt, the establishment’s tryin’ to sell.

It’s a guy with the balls who told the establishment to go to hell.” – Eric Church

Slam Poetry Intro:

If a movement were to embody the battle cry of the disenfranchised, overworked, and generally shit-on Generation X, it would be #Occupy. We are the first generation in the history of this country to be worse off than our parents. Saddled with ever growing mounds of student loan debt that we were encouraged to incur in the futile pursuit of the American Dream, we are slaves not only to our debt, but to the boomers, our parents, as they age and look to us to care for them. At the same time, we struggle to provide for our own children and have the lowest rates of home ownership of any generation.

We grew up in the 80s, the era of Reagan and trickle down economics. Let me tell you that from the view of the 99%, the only trickle down that has worked have been the piss and filth in which we squander as the result of the establishment choking us to the point of death and then continuing to squeeze. It makes Urinetown look not like a musical, but rather like a pristine, and sterile hospital. We were raised in the age of excess, where more equaled prestige, and when it came our turn to take the reins, encountered a Second Depression that the right likes to write off as “recession.”

We break our backs under the lie of meritocracy. If good deeds equaled rewards, then why are we on our knees, as we beg for rights like healthcare, housing, and employment? We are the generation that fought your war on terror, and yet our veterans come home to shambles worse home than abroad. As a country, we neglect those who have fought to protect our freedoms, often in a war that they did not support or understand.

In all five American cities in which I occupied, encampments held relatively the same type of folk. Generation X. The students, the veterans, the homeless, the gay, the everyday people whose blood, sweat and tears keep this country moving every day.

End Slam Poetry Intro

One of the things that amazed me the most about the time I spent with Occupy was how human we all were in our connectedness to the issues and the situation. There were people in Philly, Boston, New York, and the two other cities in which I occupied that were of all ages, colors, and religions, and were able to create a harmonious and unified community, the type of which some cities dream to create. For the most part peaceful (yes, I understand some cities had violence), it was an opportunity not only to try to have our voices heard, but to come together and share the common experiences we all had.

One of the most important things I learned from my time with the Occupy movement is that the notion of meritocracy in this country truly is dead. I have often wondered both in my personal life and as a social worker, how it is possible for people to make “good choices”: for people to be working and live in small apartments with practically no luxuries, such as no cable, no cell phone, and sometimes no vehicle, and yet still struggle to put food on the table. The problem is not that we are not working hard enough or making poor choices. The problem is that our time is not valued and wages have stagnated in comparison to inflation.

Combine the death of meritocracy with the growth of the upper class, and now there is this entire swarm of people who made up Occupy. One of the things I feel like I brought to the table in my interactions with my fellow occupiers was the realization that in some European countries, such as France, where things are very different: France has universal healthcare, ample vacation time, ample pay, and other amenities than American lack – is that in France, the government is afraid of the people. In America, the people are afraid of the government.

This is an important distinction to consider. The power of the occupy movement was in realizing that we are the 99%. While the 1% holds the power in the form of an oligarchy, we are in fact more numerous and potentially have the ability to take some of that power back. The hard part is organization.

Once the camps disbanded, we all returned to our lives. We are still slaves to our jobs, taking care of both parents and kids, and living in tiny apartments because we can’t afford houses. We can’t afford healthcare. We can’t afford vacations. We see what “normal” lives are on the media and drown ourselves even further by going into debt trying to achieve what the 1% has gotten by pushing us down.

Part of my journey into minimalism is to further embody the occupy movement in my own life by saying no more. I will not be a slave to 65-hour workweeks. I will live within my means. If I have a pair of $7 jeans from Goodwill that fit and are decent, I do not need to go out and buy a $60 pair of jeans from designer store. Who am I trying to impress? People will either like me as is or bug off. I refuse to buy into the lie that the 1% is selling.

I am fully aware that I have lived through this country’s Second Great Depression in what was supposed to be the highlight years of my life. I am fully aware that I will never be able to afford to purchase a home, or have children. At this point, I have finally realized that no matter if you work hard and make good choices, that the system is stacked against us, and that it is a system that has been decades in the making.

It is perhaps times like this, when I feel closest to people who were from my grandparents’ time the people who lived through the first Great Depression. They were able to survive hard times and yet still maintain their dignity and their happiness. My time with the occupy movement has taught me the same. I may not be able to enact widespread change of the clusterfuck around me, but I can work to enact positive change in my own life. I can strive for happiness.

Yes, I am buried in student loans that I will never be able to repay, and I do realize that education was my “choice” (but really, what jobs can you get without one?); I am not paid a salary commensurate with my educational level, but I make a living wage. I may be on a shoestring, but I make ends meet. I have people in my life that love me, and at the end of the day, that’s all that really matters.

For the record, I would have to say that of five cities, Philly was my favorite camp in which I occupied. In Philly, there was a sense of community. People were respectful and helpful with advice, warmth, and coffee, anything that you needed. The people I met and spent time with in the occupy camps would literally give you the shirt off their back if you needed one. That is what life is all about. Life is about people, not things.

While occupy is a political movement, and holds deeply political meanings for me, the most important aspect of my experience was very human. It’s about knowing that you are not alone in this world, that someone else shares your experience, and that you are loved.

My name is Rachel Anderson, and I am the 99%.